Canada's Indigo Books & Music changes returns policy

Canada’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo, is introducing some dramatic changes to its returns policy for publishers. According to a Quill and Quire report, Indigo plans to evaluate how books are selling after only 45 days and return slow sellers to publishers shortly thereafter. On top of that, they’re cutting shelf space for books to roll out more lifestyle products — no doubt more picture frames and gift cards and that sort of thing. So that means a book has to sell like, well, a bestseller in that first month and a half after release or it’s off to the glue factory. And forget about backlists for all but the most commercially successful writers — there just won’t be any room in the bookstores for that kind of luxury.

Publishers are understandably upset with the impending changes, but I can’t really blame Indigo. The marketplace is changing as ebooks gain in popularity, and Indigo is just trying to survive. There’s no future in remaining dedicated to print books, so Indigo is diversifying into products that earn more money per square foot. It’s just business.

Publishers need to make the same sort of tough changes and transform their business models. It’s time for them to break up with bookstores before they get dumped. Sure, bookstores have traditionally been publishers’ real customers, and most of their marketing and promotions have been directed at the retail outlets. But they need to get out of the distribution mindset and start building relationships with readers, not sales reps and store managers. They need to think in terms of community, not copies shipped and returned. Take the recent initiative of Angry Robot Books in the UK, for instance, which reached out directly to readers and offered them a package discount if they bought the entire season’s list of new books — ebooks, that is. Angry Robot’s offer is similar to Baen’s webscriptions service, another new publishing model that focuses on digital rather than print. (Angry Robot also sells other products, such as iPod cases and T-shirts — lifestyle objects that support the cultural brand rather than replace it.)

These publishers are finding success in forming direct relationships with readers, and all publishers need to follow similar digital initiatives. It’s a shift that’s happening in other industries — I work in the media and most newspapers have adopted a “digital first” position, openly acknowledging the days of print are numbered. Publishers need to do the same. Print books will be around for some time yet, but they’re obviously on their way to becoming a niche product for bookstores. Bookstores should become a niche customer for publishers, and they should focus all their efforts on reaching the customers that will matter in the future: the readers.

About Peter Darbyshire (Roman)

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Posted on July 9, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is why I prefer smaller booksellers! I’m all about technology – I was one of the first to get the IPad in Abbotsford – first generation – but I still love the printed books – they’re more tangible, more satisfying… my humble opinion!

  2. peter darbyshire

    @Darlene: I like smaller bookstores — well, some of them — because of the people behind and in them. But then you run into problems with finding the books you want in stock. And my books are often niche….

    I just don’t see a way for any bookstore to compete with ebooks in the long run.

    @Sean: I agree with you re publishers’ websites. They need to totally reinvent what they do with them. As it stands now, most of them are little more than an online catalog with some tour dates thrown in. You’re right that they need to work with authors to create videos or post interviews and shorts or whatever. Use the site as a base for the material and spread out to the social networks from there.

    Also, I like that wine subscription model. Hmm, maybe publishers could hook up with wineries and pair bottles with books….

    At any rate, looking at how other businesses are changing the way they do things would be useful. It’s really not just a change in technology we’re encountering, it’s the end of the retail model as we’ve traditionally known it.

  3. I think a wine subscription – where you have no idea what kind of plonk the winery will decide to unload on you, since you’re captive to their whims – is a rotten idea, something I’d never do unless I was an alcoholic and the deal was really REALLY good. Same goes for a book subscription from a publisher. I don’t want every book in Anansi’s or Cormorant’s or even Random House’s catalogue. In fact, I want almost none of them.

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